AL: It’s so interesting that, in part, fiction allowed you to give these other narratives life. And you mention these notebooks and stories you wrote while in China—capturing these stories that maybe didn’t make it into those headlines. How did you settle on the short story form, and when did you realize that this was a collection?
T-PC: I had been working on revising a novel. And I’d just been feeling stuck and had fallen out of love with the project. And I just remember, one night biking home, and then having the phrase “Shanghai Murmur” pop into my head from nowhere. I didn’t know exactly what it meant. I didn’t think it would be a title for the novel that I was working on, but it kept bouncing around in my head. And I thought I would try to write a short story around it. I’ve always loved short stories but hadn’t written any before. And so I basically set myself a goal: I would try to write ten. And so that’s how they happened. It kind of astonished me, once I sat down to write, just how quickly these worlds started to tumble out and unfold themselves.
The writing process was very much starting with an image or an idea. Like in “Gubeikou Spirit,” I had this question of what would happen if we got stuck on a train platform? Other [stories] were animated by the desire to bring a particular place to life. I’m thinking of “New Fruit,” which is very much a tribute to the neighborhood where I lived in Beijing and the kind of distinct voices that I encountered. They all have a different jumping-off point.
But I rarely knew what would happen. In journalism, you get really used to having a particular arc and kind of deliberately plugging in all the pieces of a story. I loved getting to write the short stories because I got to really train myself to not want to forecast. You carve out a particular character’s voice and then see what would happen next. And so in fiction, the delight in it is not knowing what’s going to happen next.
AL: Do you have a particular favorite in the collection, and, if so, how did you come to the idea of that particular story?
T-PC: My favorite would probably be “Flying Machine.” It’s a story that really does, to me, embody a part of the country that I loved getting to experience and also that I think is really special. And the character Cao Cao is just extraordinarily resilient and creative.
I had just kept encountering these news clippings about these rural inventors who were making these incredible things. And for whatever reason, repeatedly, airplanes. As a foreign correspondent, you’ll come in in the morning, you’ll scan the local papers, and I can picture the newspaper columns—often, it wouldn’t even be a big story. Just a short little thing about, like, “A farmer built an airplane in the countryside.” And I mean, you read that and it just stays with you. So for me, you know, it wasn’t going to be a news story. But I found myself just thinking about this question of who would be this person who would do something so extraordinary—to build an airplane even though he’s never flown. And so I kept thinking and Cao Cao ended up being the character.
AL: All the stories in the collection have such a different feel and texture while also feeling cohesive and united. Do you keep this in mind in the ordering of the stories?
T-PC: I wanted to stay conscious of the tempo, because there are some pieces in the collection that are of an ensemble cast, others are slower and quieter, some are narrated and more of a choral, like “New Fruit,” and others are much more dreamlike and have political allegory attached. So I wanted to find the balance and weave them in and out of each other. That was really kind of the thinking behind it. And then the one placement that I was especially conscious of was just wanting to end the collection with “Gubeikou Spirit,” because, to me, the ending of that story is sort of like an aperture; it opens the reader up, and it takes them to a note of hope, and that felt important to me.
AL: The book also reckons with the politics of China as well. In some stories, like in “Gubeikou Spirit” and “New Fruit,” you approach these topics using magical realism and surrealism as devices—what made you choose these devices?
T-PC: It was really writing about politics and China in a new way. When I stepped into a fictional world, getting to apply some of the tools of fiction—like magical realism and surrealism—ended up feeling like a really natural way to do it.
Especially because, in some stories where it’s used more, like “Gubeikou Spirit,” it was really because I had a question in my head—it was sort of like, “What if?” In some ways, thinking about politics in China is sort of a what-if question. There are certain things that are taboo. In “New Fruit,” when people are starting to surface all of these buried memories in this collective way, that’s not something you’re going to see in contemporary China—not now anyway. And so I wanted to write a story about a community being transformed and about memory, and some of the ambiguities of getting to explore things that we try to leave behind. And so that came back to bending reality to get there.
Something that I’ve heard from readers is that this level of abstraction has, in some ways, made it easier for readers to see themselves in the characters. Take for example, “Gubeikou Spirit,” it’s not a story about Xi Jinping. It’s a story about people who happen to be stuck in a train station. And it’s something that allows people to access it from that point. Readers say, “Oh, yeah, it reminds me of my life now, during the pandemic.” Some of those fiction devices can bring people closer to some of those political questions that otherwise might feel less accessible.
AL: I’m curious to hear about how you balance your job as a journalist with other writing endeavors.
T-PC: I like writing in the mornings. I wrote before I left for the bureau, which was tough. I’m really not a morning person. And because I’m not a morning person, I find that when writing in the morning, [I am] kind of in a half-dreamlike state. When you feel like your mind is tissue-sensitive to what you’re thinking. Every morning you put down a certain word, and it just lays down tracks and direction. In the morning, you could be really attentive to those small changes. I found writing in the mornings helpful to try and let myself just inhabit a different kind of space and thinking.
AL: Any advice for aspiring writers?
T-PC: Read and keep reading. The incredible thing about books is you can pick a book off the shelf and just learn from any author. Living in Beijing without being connected to an MFA community or anything, I felt like it was possible to read and take on authors as mentors just by the virtue of and the accessibility of books. I mean, you can learn from anyone that you read. And that’s just an incredible gift.